Byran Dai was 24 when he promised his mother, who passed away less than two months later, that he would look out for his younger brother Brandon, who has autism.
Brandon, who was 15 at the time, was receiving special education and social services, but Dai knew that by 22, his brother would phase out of the services and education provided by the state.
“In the autism community, we call that ‘falling off the cliff,’ ” Dai said. “It’s what a lot of families are worried about.”
Like so many entrepreneurs inspired by personal experience, Dai’s concern for his brother ultimately became the genesis for a new business. In 2018, Dai co-founded Daivergent, a startup that is connecting tech companies with a pool of candidates who are on the autism spectrum. The company already has 20 corporate clients and has helped 75 people find work. There are about 1,100 candidates in the Daivergent pool.
The employment rate for individuals who have autism — even for those who have finished college — is extremely low. Statistics vary, but according to Anne Roux, a research scientist at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University, about 50% of those on the spectrum have had at least one job since high school, but often that job is a low-paying part-time position. For those with greater impairment, she added, only 14% have employment in the community in which they live.
It’s not that they lack abilities, said David Kearon, director of adult services for the advocacy group Autism Speaks. “Anecdotally what we hear all the time is that autistic adults have the intellectual capability, but, because of their challenges with social skills, they’re often unemployed.”
Brandon Dai, for example, “can focus on detail-oriented, complex, repetitive kinds of work that underlie much of the data structure that go into artificial intelligence and machine learning,” his brother said.
Byran Dai, a data scientist, and a high school friend Rahul Mahida, a data engineer who has a cousin with autism, realized that there was no platform to pair those on the spectrum with companies looking for candidates who could work in data and artificial intelligence.
The corporate name, Daivergent, is essentially a portmanteau combining Dai’s name with neurodiversity, the term describing those individuals who have a range of neurological conditions including autism. Most of the general population is considered to be neurotypical.
Leon Campbell, 24, who has autims, was employee No. 1 at the new company. With a computer science degree from Hunter College in New York, Campbell had technical skills but had never had a job before Daivergent hired him. He initially worked on labeling, but now focuses on quality assurance, overseeing the projects that Daivergent’s remote workers complete.
“I am one of the last lines of defense,” he said, before the work is sent to the corporate client.
He worried that his new job would be stressful, but because Dai and Mahida were so accommodating, “those concerns quickly faded away on the first week of the job.”
Dai and Mahida have taken a multifaceted approach to building their company because both the candidates and the tech companies have needs that can be complex.
At the outset, Dai and Mahida reached out to organizations like Autism Speaks and AHRC New York City to find suitable candidates, whose skills are assessed through Daivergent’s readiness platform, which incorporates work experience, technology skills and socialization. Teaching the requisite skills is accomplished through video-based education.
Mahida said candidates often excel at the ability to vet thousands of images. “They do much better on these assessments than Byran and I did,” he said.
The most difficult part may be improving social and communication skills. Daivergent, Dai said, builds “shared interest groups through community forum and instant messaging tools, and also creates virtual job clubs where folks on the spectrum can swap tips and review resumes. It creates a community by us, and for us.”
And Daivergent is working with software giant SAP, which is a leader in employing those on the spectrum through its Autism at Work initiative, which started in 2013.
Judith Williams, SAP’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, said that Daivergent would be offered for customers who purchased Fieldglass, SAP’s product for managing contingent workers, so that those customers could have access to Daivergent’s workforce. In addition, Williams said, SAP’s managers would have direct access to Daivergent’s workforce as well.
Daivergent is also working with colleges to help students with autism gain employment. At Drexel, for example, the company is working with the university’s autism support program, to help those students obtain work to fulfill academic requirements, since the school is a co-op system that requires students to complete several internships before graduating.